|In Rio, everyone dances on the wings!|
Rio de Janeiro. I might just as well be going to the moon.
I have never been to Brazil before, but I have been headed there for fifteen years. My husband, Jose, is Brazilian, and even though I've been eating Brazilian food, listening to one-sided telephone conversations in Portuguese and interacting with Brazilian guests for that long, life interfered as it so often does and I was never well enough or had time enough to go with him. I've built mental pictures, of course, some spawned by bad movies, Blame It on Rio, Jose's stories of working with early bossa nova artists (Gilberto Gil, Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto), good movies about the crime that arises out of poverty (City of God and Central Station) the entrancing and frightening practices of the voodoo-like candomblé. More than that, though, my conception of Brazil springs from the stories of Dona Roberta.
Jose's mother was born at an interesting time (only 40 years after slavery ended in Brazil and echoes of the old empire were still reverberating) into an interesting family (all diplomats except for my black sheep husband, who is an audio engineer). She grew up on an estate when that meant having a chauffeur, butler, nanny and gardeners. From her bedroom window she could see the laundresses, former slaves and the daughters of slaves, coming up from the riverside, back from where everything had been washed by hand and spread to dry. They carried the baskets on their heads, the linens heaped with jasmine blossoms. "Ah, it was so fragrant!" she said.
When she was a girl, the family followed her father to his various diplomatic assignments in the Netherlands, Portugal, and finally Italy where he was the ambassador. She remembered disembarking the ship and standing with her parents on the dock as their trunks and other luggage was piled about them. Among these were four cages full of canaries her father loved, and she would blush with embarrassment as he took out his flute and played to make them sing. Then the delegation would arrive, her parents would leave, and she and her brothers would have to wait with the luggage. "So annoying! And all those canaries!"
While living in Europe, her father sent the children to English schools so they could learn another language and told them they had better be perfect. "You are Brazilians," he said, "and no one expects so much of us. Surprise them!"
When I met Roberta (she had come to Portland to visit her son ... and see who this American woman was) she was 84 and still spoke English beautifully -- as well as French, Italian and Spanish. And she told me stories -- simple stories, but with details that made them memorable. Despite her privileged upbringing, her life was not happy. She met Jose's father on the beach at Copacabana. "He was blond," she said. "That was so unusual and exotic to me. And he had green eyes, green like the sea. Our families knew each other -- yes, they were diplomatic corps too -- and soon enough we decided to marry."
When he returned, he all he had to say was, "I have decided not to be married." He left and she never saw him again. As luck would have it, though, she was pregnant. She heard from him one more time, after she wrote to tell him he had a son. He sent a telegram. "It is better for the child to be with you. You will make him a man. You are strong and I am not."
And so, Dona Roberta was left to raise the baby on her own. She named him Jose Augusto (all the men in her family are given the first name Jose, because their sugar plantation was save from a devastating fire on St. Joseph's day). Divorce was not yet legal in Brazil and her father forbade her to work, so she went to live with her parents again. She and little Jose traveled with them to Europe and her life was subsumed into theirs once more. It must have been odd, uncomfortable and so humiliating. But she was strong. When her father died, she found a job doing social work and took no more money from the family.
She worked, studied art history, wrote stories for magazines and for the newspaper. She was courted by the poet, de Paiva, and even after Jose's father died, she refused to marry him until her son was grown and out of the house. "I didn't want any stranger to tell him what to do," she said. When she married the poet, though, it was a miserable life. He put a stop to her writing. "One writer in the family is enough," he told her. Jealous? Clearly. "I was so happy when my mother became ill," she told me. "Well, after all, she and I had never gotten on, but now I was able to tell de Paiva, 'I am sorry, but I must go to my mother. It is my duty.' And off I went."
"What became of the poet?" I asked. "Oh...eventually he died. I was not so fond of him after all."
Dona Roberta died in her sleep more than a year ago, and it has taken me all this while to write about her. And now, time and bureaucracy moving more slowly in Brazil than anywhere else in the Cosmos, we are flying down to settle her worldly goods -- her writing, her books, her collections, and all the odds and ends her family accumulated since fleeing Portugal in the wake of Napoleon. It all came to her, and now to us.